SLeone’s ex-soldier turned progressive champion vying for second termWed, 21 Jun 2023 06:21:08 GMT

On stage, Julius Maada Bio dances to an afrobeats hit, pacing with a slightly off-rhythm bounce as supporters in his party’s token green cheer.The scene, like others captured in widely shared videos from campaign rallies, appears unnatural for the quiet former putschist, now leading Sierra Leone as an elected civilian.But Bio, 59, who on Saturday contests a second term as president of the West African nation, has worked hard to rebrand himself since his brigadier days as a family man who cares deeply about education and women’s issues.”Bio is concerned about how his presidency is perceived, particularly internationally, and his media team have sought to curate a narrative that amplifies its positives and glosses over shortcomings,” said independent analyst Jamie Hitchen.Supporters hail his record as fostering some of the most progressive policies in the region over his five-year tenure.From abolishing the death penalty and a criminal libel law, to boosting women’s representation in the public and private spheres, and slashing school fees to widen access to education, all were recommendations by Sierra Leone’s post-civil war Truth and Reconciliation Commission.Around the capital Freetown, his face adorns billboards advertising free sanitary pads for students and he has introduced measures to keep vulnerable children including pregnant girls in school.Improving access to education accounts for nearly a quarter of the national budget.In a recent interview with AFP, Bio said he would prioritise agriculture in a second term and reduce reliance on imported food staples such as rice, as Sierra Leoneans battle a cost-of-living crisis.”What we want to do is not only to produce the staple and other things, but also to use agriculture to stimulate economic growth right across the country,” he said.However, his detractors say the civic space has shrunk under his watch. Sierra Leone’s score on the annual index of US-based democracy advocacy group Freedom House has slipped.The country dropped 28 places on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index for 2023.Following deadly riots last August, Amnesty International said it had gathered testimonies alleging excessive use of force and denounced internet restrictions.Bio’s main challenger, Samura Kamara, is on trial for corruption, in a case that reopened directly after his election as the opposition’s presidential candidate.- ‘Shot their way to power’ – Bio comes from the south, a stronghold of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) he now leads. His father, a local chief, died when he was four and he was raised by an illiterate mother whom he credits for instilling in him a respect for women and an understanding of the value of education.In 1992, he participated in a coup with a group whose leader, Valentine Strasser, became the youngest head of state in the world at age 25.Bio served as chief of the defence staff and deputy to Strasser before overthrowing him in 1996 and briefly taking over as head of state.He agreed to step aside three months later for an elected civilian leader and subsequently apologised for his role in the junta. “He was among a group of military guys who shot their way to power,” Information Minister Mohamed Rahman Swaray told AFP. “The other guys were trying to stay on, and he wanted to leave… He had a conviction that Sierra Leone was bigger than their personal aspirations.”Bio retired from the military and went to study in the United States.Swaray described Bio as loyal, naming a long list of cabinet ministers and aides who have known him since his time in the diaspora, or even since school.Trade Minister Edward Hinga Sandy said the president was a “very good listener” who seeks many viewpoints before making a decision. Sandy described his leadership as “ambitious”, “focused”, “disciplined” and “bold”.”He has this thing in him… ‘What I was not able to do when I was a military leader because I did not have time, I should be able to do at this time'”, Sandy said.The Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) data group found that Bio has fully completed 33.5 percent of his 2018 campaign promises, including on land planning and housing, the economy and education, and has made significant progress on another 28 percent. – Few words – A man of few words, even by his own description, Bio does not often show emotion.When AFP asked about Sierra Leone’s current economic malaise that has left people struggling to afford three meals a day, he was quick to say the crisis was caused by exogenous factors and not his doing.But some burdens appear to weigh heavily on the leader. Joseph Kaifala — a historian on the 1991-2002 civil war during which Bio was a soldier and later part of the ruling junta — once asked the president if he knew that the largest identified mass grave in Sierra Leone was in his hometown of Tihun.”He responded, ‘Yes, I know — those people were killed because of me'”, Kaifala told AFP by telephone.”President Bio is a very stoic fellow… but then he did manage to convey to me how much that has affected him… and he really does believe in the work that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission did.”